Today Bihar and its adjacent areas celebrate their most important festival — Chhat. Since a lot of my friends here, don’t know much about the significance of this festival, I thought I should explain why it is so important to us.
The name ‘Chhat‘ comes from the word in Hindi for ‘sixth’— because it is celebrated on the sixth day of Kartik (Kartik Shukla Shashthi) or on the sixth day after Diwali. The word “chhat” is a Prakrit derivation from the Sanskrit shashti which means sixth. The festival is celebrated to worship the Sun— the single source of sustenance of all life.
The four day festival pays a lot of emphasis on cleanliness of the body and environment and calls for one of the most arduous fasts, where the ‘vratin‘ goes without food or water for almost 42 hours. There is no idol worship involved. The highlights of the festival are the offerings (‘arghya‘) made to the Sun God during sunset and sunrise. Worship of the sun both during sunset and sunrise signifies the cycle of life. Remember that winter has just set in, and being immersed in the cold Ganges dressed in a thin unstitched garment, both at sunrise and sunset is no mean feat. While it is women who usually undertake the fast, several men also observe the fast.
The pooja is dedicated to the sun and his wives Usha and Sangya (also called Sandhya). Most of the local songs are about Chhati maiyya which is a probable reference to Usha. The devotees pay their obeisance to the Sun for bestowing life’s bounties to us. It is a unique festival which, like the Sun itself, does not discriminate between gender, caste or creed. There are several legends associated with Chhat. One says that this ancient practice was started by Suryaputra Karna who worshipped the Sun every morning immersed in the Ganges.
The first day of chhat (the fourth day after Diwali) is called nahaye-khaye. People who wish to undertake the rigorous fast, bathe in a holy river or pond, prepare a typical lunch made of rice, dal made with pumpkin (kaddoo bhaat) and eat this basic meal (prepared without onion or garlic) before undertaking the long fast. The second day (the fifth day after Diwali) is called kharna. People fast without water for the whole day, offer kheer-poori during the arghya in the evening. They eat one meal at dinner.
The third day (the sixth day of Diwali) is the main day of chhat. They offer arghya to the rising and setting sun and go without food and water. A typical arghya will consist of fruits (mainly sugarcane, bananas and mousambi) along with traditional sweets like thekuaa and rice laddus. These are usually offered in bamboo winnows (called soop). The vratins are typically dressed in yellow, orange or red, the colours of the sun.
The fast ends on the seventh day after Diwali after offering arghya to the rising sun. Thus devotees undertake at least 42 hours of strict fasting. It is an arduous task and usually one family member performs it every year before it is passed to the next generation. The only reason for skipping the fast any year is a death in the family.
There are some additional practices, one of which is kosi bharana. A kosi is a structure built by arranging five to seven sugarcane sticks in the form of a pyramid. In the centre of this is either a terracota elephant or some pots. These are decorative items which have arrangements to light lamps all around them. On it are kept fruits, thekua and other items. This structure is kept in the courtyard of a house. In the evening after sunset, women sit around this and sing Chhat folk songs. This practice is done when a mannat or wish has been fulfilled. In some households, a kosi is arranged when a child is born or a child is married off.
This year, we have a daughter-in-law from Nepal in the family and it is interesting to know that they celebrate Chhat with equal fervour too in the areas with large Madheshi populations. It is interesting to know that countries with large number of immigrants from Bihar, such as Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Guyana, Suriname and Jamaica keep these traditions alive across the shores too.
Best wishes to you and your families on this auspicious occasion.